Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A ‘chosen diplomat’ in the promised land

On the face of it, Germany, France and Britain dominate Mideast policymaking for the EU. It is these – the E3 – who are negotiating with Iran in an effort to head off Teheran’s dash for nuclear weapons. They’ve also led the way in setting criteria for Hamas to meet before Europe resumes aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Which is why it is easy to misjudge the influence Spain wields in the EU’s corridors of power. On Saturday, for instance, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos made it a point to meet in Amman with PA President Mahmoud Abbas to talk about ways to funnel aid to the Palestinians which would bypass the Hamas-led government.

For years now, Spaniards have played key EU policy roles relating to the Arab-Israel conflict. Javier Solana is the European Union’s foreign policy chief; Moratinos, the foreign minister, was the EU’s special Mideast envoy; and Josep Borrell is president of the Euro-Mediterranean Assembly as well as president of the European Parliament.
(The new UN special representative to the Middle East, Alvaro de Soto, is Peruvian.)


I WAS IN Spain some weeks ago. Strolling through Madrid, you get the sense of a first-class European capital: grand boulevards, expansive parks, fantastic museums, quaint, old-world squares, and big-city urban gentrification.

Spain, which sits on the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, between Europe and Africa, was one of the places in Europe where Islamic civilization clashed with Christianity (in 711 AD), and then melded with it. It is a country where the Jews thrived – under both Muslim and Christian rule – but were also cruelly persecuted by both civilizations.

But whereas Germany, France and Britain all have modern relationships with Jews and Israel that are fraught with emotional baggage, Spain’s truly ghastly past as far as the Jews are concerned – the Inquisition and Expulsion – is the stuff of history.
In Spain you can visit flourishing cathedrals that were once great mosques. But as you wander through Barcelona, Seville, Cordoba and Madrid, not only have most signs of the Jewish past been obliterated, there is little indication of any modern Jewish presence. Among Spain’s 44 million population, there are said to be perhaps 40,000 Jews.

During Francisco Franco’s long reign (1939-1975), Spain was diplomatically isolated and heavily reliant on the Arabs for both oil and UN votes. When the old dictator died, Madrid’s isolation from liberal Europe ended, and in 1978 the country became a constitutional monarchy. And just this past January, Spain and Israel marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Spain is a country in transition. Though overwhelmingly Catholic, most Spaniards are drifting toward a secular lifestyle. Politically, Spain’s integrity as a unified nation-state is challenged by demands from its 17 regions for ever greater degrees of autonomy. The recent decision of the Basque separatist group ETA to end its long terrorist campaign is a bright spot. But whether Spanish decision-makers can placate the region with offers of autonomy that avoid outright self-determination is an open question.

The country is led by Socialist Workers Party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who defeated Jose Maria Aznar’s conservative Popular Party in March 2004 shortly after Islamist terrorists bombed a Madrid commuter train, slaughtering 191 people.


MADRID’S ambassador in Tel Aviv is the urbane Eudaldo Mirapeix. He began his Foreign Service career as a North America expert. But after successive postings – in Egypt, Jordan, and now Israel – Mirapeix is one of the most experienced European diplomats in the country.

Q) Based on your experiences in the region, what’s the one thing Israelis need to understand about the Arab world?

That relations between Arabs and Israelis are distorted by reciprocal, derogatory clichés which make it hard for people to identify common interests.

Q) For instance?
For instance, Arabs are today fully reconciled with the idea of the existence of Israel living in peace on its soil on the Middle East. The radical, sometimes violent, contrary trend persists here and there – like Hamas, but it is a minority belief. Arab governments and average people think differently.

Q) Plenty of Israelis expect the EU will find some formula to allow it to continue to funnel financial support to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. Are they being unnecessarily cynical?

Do you think that the EU was cynical when, as a member of the Quartet, it stated three conditions – recognition of Israel, assumption of past bilateral agreements, abandonment of violence – that the Hamas-led government had to fulfill in order to, among other things, receive financial support?

Look, Hamas is described as a terrorist group by the EU. And on April 10, EU foreign ministers endorsed a temporary halt to direct aid to the Hamas-led PA. The EU does not have any intention whatsoever of circumventing these conditions.

Having said that, we cannot let the Palestinian people starve, and we must help them with their basic needs. Ways to maintain humanitarian aid will take into account the need to avoid allowing it to fall into the wrong hands.


Q) Your government has recently given the PA $3.6 million. More has just now been promised. Do you track to see how that money is actually used?

Of course we do. Spain’s foreign assistance to the Palestinians, especially under the present circumstances, is channeled through programs and organizations that have a track record.

But let’s not be misled by the continuation of some EU assistance to the Palestinians. For all practical purposes, international assistance to the Palestinian people can be arranged under three general headings: budget support, humanitarian and development aid. Donors have on the whole agreed that humanitarian assistance is not an issue in the ongoing discussion.

Not only that. It might even be increased to alleviate the added hardships that those Palestinians most in need will have to endure as a result of the reduction in other forms of assistance.


Q) So what does Europe now expect from the Hamas-led PA?

Hamas cannot change its past, but it can change its future. Europe, alongside other major international partners – the US, Russia and the United Nations – is now expecting that Hamas will, in the near future, fulfill the three key principles we have set out for political dialogue and financial assistance.

Hamas-affiliated leaders can be heard protesting their democratic legitimacy. They say that they won an unequivocal victory in the January 25 legislative elections and that we consequently should conduct business as usual with them.

Let’s have no doubt about it: Violence and terror are not only repulsive, they are incompatible with any genuine democratic engagement. That’s why we have urged Hamas to renounce violence, to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and to disarm.

Q) Why is Europe pushing Israel to “help Abu Mazen” (Mahmoud Abbas)? Given that the PA Chairman cannot use the tens of thousands of militiamen under his command to take security control over the areas under PA jurisdiction, what continuing value does Europe see in helping him?

I would say the same value many Israelis see: Mahmoud Abbas was democratically elected on January 9, 2005. He is the president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas won over 62% of the votes cast. That’s not a tiny fraction of the Palestinian people, is it? He has a strong mandate by any standard.

Why, then, should we boycott him? It would be foolish to give up, for such dubious reasons, such an important asset as President Abbas.

Abu Mazen is one of the leading Palestinian figures devoted to the search for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He has consistently advocated negotiations with Israel since the mid 1970s. He is moderate, smart, experienced. He is a potential partner for whatever negotiations might appear appropriate to conduct with the Palestinians.

In his own victory speech just after the elections in Israel, Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert referred to his willingness to engage Abu Mazen. If we want this engagement to be successful, Abu Mazen should be empowered.


Q) But if it turns out there is no Palestinian partner, Ehud Olmert has advocated an alternative approach. Can you imagine a situation in which the EU would diplomatically embrace Olmert’s unilateralism or his convergence plan? Would the EU be willing to negotiate with Israel over acceptable new borders between Israel and the Palestinian entity?

Borders between Israel and the future Palestinian state will have to be discussed and agreed upon between Israelis and Palestinians. It is an inescapable fact: The EU cannot be a negotiating partner for Israel. The EU, the Quartet, the international community can offer their good offices to mediate between the negotiating parties, which are those recognized in the Oslo agreements and the road map.

Olmert and Abbas have both made commitments as to their readiness to resume negotiations. The priority of the EU is to facilitate the endeavors of the two leaders to reach a negotiated settlement.

We believe the objectives that both the parties and the international community want to achieve – that is, two states living side-by-side in peace and security – can better be served through a bilaterally negotiated process coupled with the external assistance the parties themselves see fit to request, and which the international community can provide.

Q) What part does Spain play in Middle East issues within the EU?

I would say it is a committed member state – no more or less than others – to finding a peaceful agreement between Israel and her neighbors; if, as I think, by “Middle East” you mean the Middle East peace process.

Proof of our commitment includes the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, the launching of the Euromed Barcelona Process in 1995, and the fact that the first European Union Special Envoy for the Middle East was a Spanish diplomat, now our foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos.


Q) Still, many Israelis feel Spain tilts toward the Arab point of view. Are we being overly sensitive?

The answer to your question is not an easy one, and I will try to be as candid as I can. I assure you that Spain is neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. Spain is 100% pro-peace. How do you best serve peace? Well, we believe you do it by abiding with the principles and norms of international justice and international law.

I can, however, understand that one or other position can at a certain point in time be perceived – I repeat, perceived – as being either pro-Israeli or pro-Arab. But that would be a misperception because international legality should be the main yardstick to measure the correctness of the positions taken at any given moment.

If by “Spain” you mean Spanish public opinion, I would risk presenting some sweeping generalizations which may encapsulate the general mood: full support of the Spanish government’s policy toward a negotiated solution; sympathy to the Palestinian suffering; outright rejection of terrorist methods to foster the Palestinian cause; admiration for the Israeli building-nation feat and, by the same token, unreserved condemnation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threatening comments; and pride in the role played by Judaism in Spain’s history.
In fact, nothing would move a Spaniard more than being addressed in sweet-sounding Ladino.

In sum, the pro-Arab suspicion associated with our foreign policy is wrong and might be due to the fact that only in 1986 did we establish relations with Israel.
Today no objective observer can say that Spain’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict is biased.

Q) What do Israelis need to appreciate about Spain in order to understand your country’s role in the Mediterranean and the Arab-Israel conflict?

Perhaps the persistency with which we try to support the parties in their efforts to find a solution to the conflict through such initiatives as the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (the so-called Barcelona Process), or the Alliance of Civilizations. This is not done only out of altruism.

Spain, due to its geographical position and historical experiences, cannot look confidently into its own future unless the Mediterranean basin becomes an area of peace and prosperity, as called for in the Barcelona Charter.
We also need to confront stereotypes on both sides. The current Spanish government is engaged in that task. For instance, January 27 has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Holocaust education will have the effect of increasing understanding of Israeli politics and culture.

Last year’s OSCE Cordoba conference on anti-Semitism and other forms of intolerance proved significantly useful in raising public awareness.
The Casa Sefarad Program for intercultural dialogue between Spain and the Jewish community is now in full swing. Studies of Judaism, Jewish history and the joint legacy of our two peoples will receive strong support from the initiative.

Q) Are you managing to enjoy your posting here?

Very much so, both from a professional and personal point of view. This is a challenging post for any diplomat; you keep learning things and understanding new angles each day.

But doubtless I would put people, the people of Israel, in the very first place of interest. Meeting people here makes me feel like the chosen diplomat in the promised diplomatic post.

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